Hello, readers, and welcome back to our project management series. Today, we will explore ways to ensure continuous process improvement within organizations as a project manager.

We all know who a project manager is and by now we can nearly list the primary functions of a project manager off hand. A project manager is someone who plans, coordinates, and controls a project in order to achieve the project objectives within a defined organizational goal. Since a project is not done in isolation from the organizational goal, it is the duty of the project manager to meet the project objectives within the confines of the organization’s strategic goals.

After working on a reasonable number of projects within the same industry, typically over a long period of time, the project manager develops a level of authority within the field and has an unparalleled level of experience when compared to a new project manager or a project manager who has changed industries. This is especially true for technical project managers, such as a construction project manager or a network project manager.

However, due to the rapid change of technology and increased rate of innovation in the world today, it is not enough for you as a project manager to see yourself as an authority in the industry; you must also keep yourself abreast of every industry development.

Process improvement centers on making better the use of the human and material resources that make up a process. Continuous process improvement is an ongoing activity to improve the process. It is simply means making continuous effort as a project manager to see that a process runs better today than it did yesterday.

Why Continuous Process Improvement

Once a process has been optimized, why bother improving it? The simple reason is to gain a competitive advantage, i.e., have an edge over our competitors. The fast rate at which information circulates today means it takes a shorter time for your competitors to know what advantage you have over them and, once it becomes general industry knowledge, then it is no longer an advantage to your organization.

Continuous process improvement is also important because it improves quality, minimizes production costs, improves overall efficiency, reduces project time, and maximizes organizational profit.

The following are four identified ways to ensure continuous process improvement as project managers within organizations:

  1. Improving productivity
  2. Involving people
  3. Team working
  4. Benchmarking

Improving Productivity: According to Tony Arnold, continuous process improvement is the ability to maximize productivity with a low-cost strategy. Productivity can be improved by spending money on better and faster equipment that will help an organization to achieve more. Equipment on its own does not improve productivity, but the ability to use the equipment optimally does. As project managers, we should realize that the cost of changing to the latest technology can sometimes be very expensive, thus we should be more interested in getting the best result from existing equipment. This involves optimizing both the process and the machines.

Process optimization more often than not leads to increased productivity. It involves a detailed analysis and understanding of the activities within the process, identifying the bottlenecks and redundant activities, and improving the activities to perform optimally. The aim is to create a more efficient process, thus improving productivity.

Involving People: In the project environment, there is a need to maximize the potential of motivated and resourceful workers. Human beings are the only resources who are able to reason, learn, make decisions, and coordinate other resources to achieve project goals. It is apparent that a project manager cannot carry out all the activities involved in completing a project, so getting the right set of people to complete the task is important in improving productivity.

Continuous process improvement is more than just getting newer and faster machines or a set of theories developed by the process consultants and project manager. It is achieved by giving every member of the project team an opportunity to improve the part of the project they carry out. However, these improvements should not be carried out haphazardly by the team members; rather, they should be approved by a pre-defined approval board. Recent researches both in academics and in practice have shown that workers are more productive and committed to organizational goals when they are allowed to be flexible in the way in which they discharge their duties. Involving people not only allows them do their defined job, but also gives them the opportunity to improve their defined job.

Team Working: Team working or team involvement comes up whenever we discuss project management. Just like the saying “two good heads are better than one,” working as a part of an efficient team will most likely produce a better result than working individually. A team is a group of people working together towards a particular goal. Teams are largely successful because they are able to draw on the wealth of knowledge and experience of different professional. It is, however, important to note that not all problems can be solved by teams and it is sometimes better to work individually than as a group. It is the duty of project manager to determine which work packages should be handled individually or as a team.

Benchmarking: According to Wikipedia, the process of comparing one’s business processes and performance metrics to the industry best or best practices from other industries is known as benchmarking. Quality time and cost are the quantities that are most commonly benchmarked. Industry best practices would be set as organizational goal to determine the strategic direction of the organization.

The following steps are required for continuous process improvement:

  1. Select the process that needs to be improved.
  2. Analyze the existing method used in carrying out the process.
  3. Select the most suitable alternatives.
  • Select the process that needs to be improved: The first step in any continuous process improvement is to identify which processes needs to be improved upon. This can be determined by observing the existing processes. The indicators below can be used to determine areas that processes that require improvements:
  • Processes with high rate of rework, scrap or reprocessing
  • Processes that consumes the most cost
  • Bottlenecks
  • Processes that requires a high degree of human inputs
  • Processed where outputs are difficult to measure

It is important to mention that this list is not exhaustive, but serves as a quick guide in determining which processes needs improvements.

  1. Analyze the existing method used in carrying out the process: Once the process has been identified, the next logical process is to analyze the process. A critical analysis of the method helps in identifying the lapses in the existing methodology. While analyzing the process, we begin to come up with various ideas and alternatives that could help in improving the process. Since it is our duty as project managers to ensure continuous process improvement and we cannot do it all by ourselves, once we have identified the processes that need improvement, we can delegate experts to perform more detailed analysis. These experts could be workers, senior management, or technical persons or external consultants in some situations.
  2. Select the most suitable alternatives: During the analysis, we come up with a lot of alternatives in order to improve the process. The project manager together with senior management then must select the most suitable or optimum process improvement methodology. Various factors are usually considered when selecting the alternatives. Some of the most common factors are listed below:
  • Implementation Cost: the cost of implementing an improvement in a process can play a large role in deciding which method to use. If the effective mid- to long-term return from the improved process is lower than the cost of implementation, then it makes no logical sense to improve the process
  • Efficiency: What level of efficiency do we expect from an improved process? Sometimes we should always aim to attain optimum rather than maximum efficiency in process improvement. For example, It might be more efficient to improve the output of a process from 150 units to 270 units at a cost of $700 rather than improving output to 700 units at a cost of $2000. Process improvement should not be carried out in isolation but in view of its relation with other processes and the final product or service. Considerations such as market for the product and bottlenecks that might be created as a result of an improved process can determine the efficiency even when cost is not a constraint.
  • Technology: Is the required technology available to improve the identified process? What is the cost of the technology? What is the cost of maintaining the technology? Can the environment sustain the cost of the technology? For example, many IT firms have moved away from the use of physical storage to the use of cloud storage. This is more efficient, since it can be accessed anywhere and anytime, and cheaper, as you can pay for just the space you use. It also reduces the need for physical space and is more secure. Implementing the above might, however, not be feasible in underdeveloped nations due to the lack of good Internet backbone to support the technology. The available technology thus plays a major role in determining which process improvement methodology is selected.

Conclusion

Today we defined continuous process improvement and explored ways to ensure continuous process development in organizations. We also explored factors that determine which mode of process development an organization should embark upon.

That’s all we have for today and once again thank you for reading. Do not forget to drop your thoughts and questions in the comments section.

References

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Arnold, J. T., Chapman, S. N., & Clive, L. M. (1998). Introduction to materials management. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Ward, J. A. (1994). Continuous process improvement. Information System Management, 11(2), 74-76.